Iracema, the Honey-Lips: A Legend of Brazil

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Iracema, the Honey-Lips: A Legend of Brazil

by José de Alencar


A novel set in Ceará, Brazil, in the early 1600s; published in Portuguese (as Iracema) in 1865, in English in 1886.


The novel recounts the tragic love affair between a Portuguese colonizer, Marti m, and a young Tabajara Indian woman, Iracema.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

José de Alencar was born in 1829 in Mece-jana, Ceará, in northeastern Brazil. Many years later Alencar would recall that one of the inspirations for Iracema, the Honey-Lips was his home state’s natural beauty. Because of his Portuguese-born father’s political interests, the family moved to the southern city of Rio de Janeiro where the father later became part of the Portuguese royal court. Thanks to these political connections, Alencar was brought up surrounded by the comfort of the court. He attended school in São Paulo, then published his first novel, Five Minutes (1856), while working as the editor of a Rio de Janeiro newspaper. The next year he wrote one of his most famous novels, O guaraní (1857). After the death of his father in 1860, Alencar embraced politics as a Conservative and served briefly as Emperor Pedro II’s minister of justice. This activism lasted for a decade, during which he wrote his masterpiece, Iracema (1865). Five years later he grew embittered and left the political world. Alencar died in 1877, a victim of tuberculosis.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

From trading posts to colonies

On April 22, 1500, the Portuguese explorer Pedro Álvares Cabral, who had been blown seriously off the course he had set for the Cape of Good Hope, became the first European to land in what is now Brazil. Approximately 2 to 4 million Indians lived there at the time; the first to be encountered by the Portuguese were the Tupi-speaking peoples, who lived along the coast. Initially, the Portuguese treated their new discovery as a convenient guard post from which to protect the lucrative sea lane to Asia, and as a trading center, from which they shipped boatloads of brazilwood back to Europe, acquired in exchange for trinkets, clothing, ornamental knives, and axes given to the local indigenous peoples (Burns, p. 25). From 1516 to 1519 and 1526 to 1528, a small coast guard patrolled the vast coastline, but this proved inadequate. Although the Portuguese rarely colonized the lands they explored, preferring rather to establish trading centers, foreign incursions by other European powers prompted Portugal’s court to begin establishing more permanent colonies in Brazil that would substantiate the court’s claim to vast amounts of land.

Given their initial trading-post mentality, the male settlers did not at first bring any Portuguese women with them to colonize Brazil. This shortage of white women accelerated a process—begun by the earliest European settlers (convicts, shipwrecked men, and deserters from the Portuguese fleet)—of Portuguese unions with the local native population and the siring of mestizo offspring (Burns, p. 24). After 1538, when African slaves were first brought to the colony, the mulatto population—the offspring of whites and Africans—also increased rapidly. This pattern of miscegenation is at center of Iracema, the Honey-Lips.

French activity on the Brazilian coastline

Harassed almost immediately by the Dutch and the French, the Portuguese were obliged to establish agricultural colonies up and down the Brazilian coast to defend their land claims, though their interests in Ceará and similar areas were actually military—that is, defensive, not economic. Later, when it became clear that sporadic agricultural communities could not adequately guarantee their control over the vast Brazilian lands, the Portuguese manned forts in order to discourage the French (who claimed to have discovered Brazil in 1488) or the Dutch from making themselves at home.

The unification of Portugal and Spain between 1580 and 1640 eliminated competition between the two of them for Brazilian land; however, the French and Dutch continued to actively challenge the Portuguese claim to the Brazilian coastline. The fertile lands, so suitable for sugar plantations, as well as vast stands of brazilwood, which was in great demand in Europe (especially at the French court) for its use in manufacturing rich red dyes, inspired these nations to conduct raids and establish their own colonies in Brazil. The French devoted themselves particularly to infiltrating Brazil along the weakly defended northern coast. They traded extensively with the Indians there, and left “interpreters” to live in the Indian villages and organize the felling of brazilwood trees in preparation for the arrival of French boats (Hemming, p. 10). To further their ends, they also encouraged hostilities between the Indians and the Portuguese. France refused to recognize the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494), which divided South America between Portugal and Spain, parceling out to Portugal the eastern half of what is today Brazil. Instead, the French preferred to believe that they owned anything they occupied. They continued to raid the Brazilian coastline in an attempt to break Portugal’s monopoly in brazilwood.

In 1555 the French attacked and won control of Rio de Janeiro, establishing what they dubbed the “French Antarctic.” It took 12 years before the Portuguese finally banished them from Rio. In 1594, about a decade before the novel takes place, the French made a successful incursion into the northern region of Maranhão and established “Equatorial France.” They were expelled in 1615. Afterward the French practiced contraband and piracy, and, in their attempt to root themselves in the region, intermingled with the local Indians, establishing long-lasting, loyal relationships.

Indians in Ceará

Iracema, the Honey-Lips takes place in a very specific geography: north and east of the Jaguaribe River and west of the Serrada Ib-iapaba. At the time this area was peopled by the coastal Potiguar Indians, whose range extended north into Maranhão and south almost as far as Pernambuco. Also living in the area were the inland Tabajara Indians (or Tobajara), whose territory intersected with the Potiguars’ in several places, notably, for the novel, in the vicinity of the Uruburetama Hills. Although the novel’s Martim has been befriended by a Potiguar leader, the Potiguar were not always friendly to the Portuguese. In the vicinity of the Paraíba River, for example, a peace treaty was not concluded before 1599; until then, the local Potiguar were fierce enemies, slaying Portuguese settlers and explorers by the hundreds. The Portuguese entered into alliances with the Tabajara, the enemies of the Potiguar along the Paraíba, and together fought the Potiguar and their French allies. In Ceará the situation was different. The Portuguese first entered the area aggressively in 1603, on their way north to discourage the French from establishing themselves in Maranhão. Traveling with the Portuguese was a mixed group of Potiguar and Tabajara. On the verge of starvation, they made their way as far as the Ibiapaba hills, where they were met in early 1604 by a combined force of Tabajara and French. This situation is reflected in the novel’s opening pages, which explains that Martim is initially welcomed into Iracema’s tribe of Tabajara because her father, the shaman, takes him for yet another Frenchman:

The Tabajara tribes beyond Ibyapába were full of a new race of warriors, pale as the flowers of the storm, and coming from the remotest shores to the banks of the Mearim [a river in Maranhão] . The old man thought that it was one of these warriors who trod his native ground.

(Alencar, Iracema, the Honey-Lips, p. 6)

At the time that Martim shows up on the banks of the Acaraú River, the great Tabajara chief Irapüam (Iracema’s spurned suitor in the novel) is preparing to lead the Tabajara against the Potiguar. In 1604 Irapuam and other Tabajara in the Ibiapaba region would be conquered by a Portuguese force under Pero Coelho de Sousa, and many hundreds of Indian prisoners—as well, infamously, as Sousa’s own Indian allies—would be taken as slaves. They were never sold, thanks to an order of the King, who realized that such action would jeopardize Portuguese colonization of the area. Martim Soares, on whom the novel’s protagonist is based, himself started out on the Sousa expedition but got lost.

The Potiguar and the Tabajara both spoke the Tupi language, as did most of the tribes living near or along the coast; this is why Iracema, a Tabajara, and Martim, who has been living among the Potiguar, can communicate. Other cultural aspects were also held in common. The typical weapon was a bow and arrow, which was used on fish, fowl, and beast alike. Both men and women painted their bodies and, before the conquest by the Europeans, wore no clothing to speak of. The native peoples lived in structures of wood and thatch. Until the European arrived with the metal ax, the Indians cleared land with stone axes, cultivating a few plants—including gourds, peanuts, and manioc. They lived in villages, moving every few years when the easily eroded soil would no longer support their rudimentary agriculture. Their primary deity was Tupan, the god of thunder, who was attended by a pagé, or shaman. The forest was filled with evil spirits, most notably Anhan (Anhangá in the novel), who was typically blamed for mishaps. The novel also makes mention of “Jurupary,” another name for Anhan, whom Araken, Iracema’s father, prays will “hide himself, and allow the guest of the Page [Martim] to pass unmolested” on his night journey (Iracema, p. 25).

Native-Portuguese relations

The Portuguese, like the French, understood the importance of cultivating relationships with the local Indians and benefited hugely from native knowledge and technology, not to mention labor. It would have been difficult, if not impossible, for the Portuguese to exist in Brazil without the Indians’ help. The native peoples taught the white men how to cultivate the land, which seeds to plant, and which foods were digestible. To solidify their relationship with the Indians, the Portuguese tended to exploit the network of Indian society. Every tribe consisted of different groups. When one of them wanted to expand its affiliations with other groups in the tribe, a male would enter into a relationship with a woman outside his group; she would then become a member of his group, sharing its work. On the other hand, if a group needed to forge a political alliance with another tribe, it would offer one of its women to this tribe. The Portuguese made use of this custom. After forming an alliance through marriage, the Portuguese would exploit the union, requesting that the woman’s group help cut down and haul brazilwood to ships, and provide the ship with supplies for the trip back to Europe.

Two types of relationships prevailed when the Portuguese allied themselves with local Indians. Either the Portuguese lived with the Indians, adopting their customs, or, more commonly, the local Indians offered their women in the belief that this would result in a beneficial alliance. The women then lived with the Portuguese, leaving their Indian group.

Since various Indian tribes practiced polygamy, the Portuguese quickly discovered they could form relationships with a variety of different women, thus multiplying their alliances. However, this strategy was not foolproof, since the Indian tribes were constantly warring against one another. The Portuguese would astutely pick a tribe with which to ally themselves, then identify which tribes were mortal enemies of their allied tribe and declare war on these enemies, a ploy that virtually guaranteed the cooperation of the allied tribe. The wars allowed the Portuguese to expand their landholdings and, eventually, provided a “legitimate” vehicle for gaining Indian slaves.

At first, the Portuguese Crown refused to allow Brazil’s Indians to be enslaved; they were to be Christianized, not abused. Eventually however, in the face of the ever-increasing need for labor, as well as a mounting desire for riches, King João III (1521-55) allowed the enslavement of Indians who battled the Portuguese. This leeway was, of course, prone to misuse. In sum, the Portuguese colonized Brazil through both marriage and war. Aside from accelerating the amalgamation of Indian and Portuguese cultures, the marriages produced the mestizos, or mixed-blood Brazilians.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

Iracema, the Honey-Lips relates the encounter between Martim, a Portuguese explorer in Ceará, and Iracema, a young Tabajara woman. As the novel opens, Martim is leaving Brazil on a raft, accompanied only by a child and a dog. “What left he in that land of exile?” (Iracema, p. 2).

As the story unfolds in retrospect, we learn that what Martim left behind was Iracema. He first meets her in the forest. Startled at her bath, the young woman shoots an arrow at the white man, grazing his face. He refrains from attacking her and she quickly repents her action, offering him the broken arrow, a gesture that signified an unbreakable bond in Indian culture. She discovers that he knows her language and leads him to her father’s dwelling. Her father, Araken, is a page (or shaman) to the god Tupan. When he first sees Martim, he mistakes him for one of the Frenchmen who were living among the Tabajara of the Ibiapaba hills; Martim informs him that he is not French and has, in fact, been living happily among the Potiguar, the traditional enemies of the Tabajara, and is a friend of their famous chiefs Poty and Jacauna. He is in Tabajara country only by mistake.

Nonetheless, Araken makes him welcome, although he believes that “some bad spirit of the forest… blinded the pale-face warrior in the darkness of the wood” (Iracema, p. 9). On this ominous note, Araken leaves the dwelling, and Iracema brings Martim serving girls, telling him that she herself cannot attend to him because she guards the secret of the jurema (of which Martim will learn more shortly). He leaves the dwelling, noticing that the Tabajara warriors are dancing around a fire; the narrator informs us that Irapúam, the most prominent Tabajara chief in the area, has come to lead them against the Potiguar. Iracema catches up to Martim and persuades him to wait until her brother, Cauby, returns from a hunting trip to lead him safely back to Potiguar territory. He agrees.

Meanwhile, at daybreak, Irapúam is inciting the Tabajara to rise up against the Potiguar (referred to as the Potyuáras in the novel) and the Portuguese, whom he calls the “warriors of fire” (Iracema, p. 13). That evening, Martim is pacing morosely in front of Araken’s dwelling, feeling homesick. To comfort him, Iracema makes him a liquor of juréma (a hallucinogenic extract of a local acacia plant), which, she tells him, will restore his gladness and perhaps give him a vision of the “bride who expects him” across the ocean (Iracema, p. 16). Martim falls into a drugged sleep and sees all he longs for—his parents, his beloved—but finds that what he truly desires is Iracema, to whom he calls in his sleep. She allows him to embrace her briefly, then leaves abruptly. She has perhaps heard Irapúam, whom she finds lurking in the woods. He wants to kill Martim, of whom he is jealous. Iracema makes short work of the chiefs romantic overture and he leaves, vowing to take revenge on the white man. Iracema realizes that she is in love with the Portuguese warrior, but when Martim offers to stay among the Tabajara to make her happy, she informs him that she must remain a virgin and keep the secret of the juréma for her tribe and that it is in his best interest to avoid her company: “The brave that shall possess the Virgin of Tupan will die” (Iracema, p. 21). They agree that he must leave, but when he tries to do so, he and Cauby, his guide, run into Irapúam and some warriors, who are determined to kill Martim. A battle ensues but before long the Tabajara hear the war-cry of the Potiguars and rush to fend off the enemy. Martim and Iracema escape to Araken’s dwelling, trailed by Irapúam, who suspects that the war-cry was somehow a ploy by Iracema to distract the warriors. Irapúam accuses Iracema in front of her father of having given up her sacred virginity to Martim; he hopes that Martim will die for this, but Araken states that, if the accusation is true, Iracema must die. Martim, however, is a guest of the god Tupan and will not be harmed. Iracema hotly defends herself and Irapúam retreats. When Iracema approaches Martim, in joy, he rebukes her harshly, reminding her that her life is at stake. She accuses him of putting her aside because he loves a “white virgin” far away (Iracema, p. 33).

In the night they hear the song of the seagull, which Martim knows is the actual war-cry of Poty himself. Iracema rejoices that Martim is to be saved from the Tabajara who are waiting outside the protection of Araken’s dwelling to kill him, and vows not to warn her people that Poty is nearby. She goes out alone to call to Poty on Martim’s behalf, arranges his rescue, and later leads Martim out of the dwelling via a secret cave. It is a cave in which Araken manipulates the winds to sound like the voice of the god Tupan, which he fortuitously does at this juncture. Irapúam and some drunken warriors arrive at the door but hear the roar of Tupan and retreat. Thereafter, Iracema and Martim meet Poty in the subterranean cave and arrange for Martim to escape during the “Moon of Flowers” celebration, in which the Tabajara warriors all drink jurema and dream. When they return to the dwelling, Iracema again gives Martim some jurema to reduce his sadness in leaving her; this time, however, as she alone knows, she does not shrug off his embrace: “Tupan no longer owned his Virgin in the Tabajara land” (Iracema, p. 47).

When it is time for Iracema to leave Martim safely with Poty on the threshold of Tabajara land, she refuses, and claims that Tupan has released her from service because she betrayed the secret of jurema and because Martim’s “blood sleeps in her bosom” (Iracema, p. 57). Martim is upset but allows her to come along; almost immediately, however, his love for her overcomes him and they begin their lives as husband and wife. The next day, Iracema proves her devotion by shooting her own brother, Cauby, who is among the band of Tabajara pursuing the fugitives. The Tabajara are routed by the Potiguar, and Martim and Iracema settle down with Chief Jacauna, until the burden of living among her people’s enemies becomes too much to bear. Accompanied by Poty, Martim and Iracema build a new home for themselves on a coastal site that Martim believes would be good for Portuguese settlement. He keeps this ambition from Iracema who, four months later, reveals to a joyful Martim that she is pregnant.

His joy dissipates, however, when he sees in the distance sails like those of Portuguese ships and longs for home. Martim tells Poty that he has seen French ships, after which Poty learns that Irapúam and the French are on the move and that Chief Jacauna is calling for help. Martim and Poty depart at once, without informing Iracema. Instead, they leave her a sign and return to her after the battle, in which the Potiguar were victorious. Martim is content with her for a few short days, but then his ambition and homesickness resurface and his love withers. He considers returning to Portugal but realizes that Iracema would want to go with him, which would be unfair to her, since she would be alienated there and could not take much comfort in his dwindling love. Meanwhile, Iracema realizes that Martim is no longer happy with her and tells him that she will die as soon as their child is born, freeing Martim to return home. This statement elicits a “harsh and bitter” kiss from Martim, who seems to acquiesce to his wife’s notion that she must die in order for him to find happiness (Iracema, p. 87).


A creator of various types of tales, Alencar is perhaps best known for his trio of Indianist novels—Ubirajara, O guaraní, and Iracema—which examine the historical and mythical roots of Brazilian culture. In this context, the term “Indianism” refers to an ideology in which Brazil’s original inhabitants are portrayed as ‘’racially pure,’ “glorious and brave,” and as “honorable and loyal warrior[s] after the fashion of a club-wielding [medieval European] knight” (Reis in Foster, p. 99). In his memoirs, Como e porque sou romancista (How and Why I’m a Novelist), Alencar admits that his works idealize the Indian:

In O guaraní the savage is an ideal that the writer attempts to poeticize, stripping off the rough crust the chroniclers wrapped him up in, ripping away from him the ridiculous light that they projected on him, the brutal remainders of an almost extinct race.

(Alencar, Como e porque sou romancista, p. 61; trans. A. Potter)

Again Martim spots French sails, and again he and Poty depart. On the day that they celebrate their defeat of the French and their Indian allies, Iracema gives birth, alone, to “the first son born to this Land of Liberty begotten by the blood of the white race” (Iracema, p. 90). She names the boy Moacyr, which means “child of pain.” One day, Cauby shows up; he and Araken have missed her badly. Cauby decides to wait for Martim’s return so that they can be reconciled to each other, but Iracema sends him back to care for their father, who is all alone. He vows to return every year to visit her and her son. Alone again, Iracema loses her will to live and when Martim finally reappears, eight months after he left, she is too weak even to rise. She presents their son to him and dies. He is overcome with love and sorrow. Martim takes Moacyr to Portugal but returns a few years later with a contingent, has Poty baptized (as Antonio Phelipe Camarão), and founds a settlement. From time to time a bitterly regretful Martim returns to Iracema’s grave to contemplate his former happiness.

From romantic love to founding myth

To a modern reader, there is obvious romanticism in Alencar’s novel, which presents Iracema as unspeakably beautiful, humble, obedient, sexually uninhibited (once the problem of her sacred virginity is dealt with), and utterly devoted to her white warrior, whom she appears to love from the moment she sets eyes on him. As John Hemming points out, such traits were important elements of the “noble savage” tradition that swept Renaissance Europe in the wake of Portugal’s encounter with Brazil’s natives; books such as Ra-belais’s Pantagruel and Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly reacted to or promulgated the image of the Brazilian Indians as supremely uncomplicated, natural, moral, free, people. Less theoretically, what turned the explorers’ heads were the unabashedly naked Brazilian women. A chronicler aboard Cabral’s ship described one such woman:

[She was] all dyed from head to foot in … paint; and indeed she was so well built and so well curved, and her privy part (what a one she had!) was so gracious that many women of our country, on seeing such charms, would be ashamed that theirs were not like hers.

(Caminha in Hemming, p. 4)

Writers of the time remark upon the Indian custom of hospitality, which usually involved the gift of a girl to a man to satisfy his desires; however, this was true only of unattached girls; wives remained faithful to their husbands. Portuguese sailors were astounded when Indian girls visiting their ships “surrendered to the white men with natural innocence” (Hemming, p. 17). People conceived of this natural innocence as a type of purity, which is attached to Iracema in the novel. Given this context, its description of her, which may strike readers as hyperbolic, makes better sense.

Ubirajara, O guaraní, and Iracema are all overtly concerned with the idea of Brazil as a hybrid society, the result of inter-marriage between different noble races (in Iracema and O guaraní, between Europeans and Indians) and different peoples (in Ubirajara, between traditionally inimical Indian tribes). However, as Renata Wasserman points out, in each of these novels lasting harmony from such racial and intergroup mingling is possible only in theory. In the first two novels, death and disaster thwart the Indian-European marriages. In Ubirajara the intertribal union is mutually beneficial but threatened by the advent of Brazil’s violent European conquerors, who are alluded to in the novel’s extensive footnotes, though contact has not yet occurred. The suggestion seems to be that, the nobility of Brazil’s founding races notwithstanding, only outside of history can harmonious racial mingling be successfully achieved (Wasserman, Exotic Nations, pp. 213-16).

In the end, the romantic love in Iracema is doomed. The beautiful Indian dies of a broken heart and her Portuguese mate is left with feelings of remorse and longing. Yet the novel closes also with hope in the guise of their son, Moacyr, the mythical first Brazilian, a mixture of Iracema’s purity and Martim’s colonizing warrior spirit. According to one literary historian, “As Alencar implies,” the mother perishes just as Indian America must die, leaving her son, “the symbolic product of all the pain of the Conquest and the first true Brazilian in the care of his Portuguese father” (Haberly in González Echevarría and Pupo-Walker, p. 143).

The real Martim Soares Moreno

Iracema, the Honey-Lips was inspired by actual historical events and real people. In mid-1603 an expedition commanded by Pero Coelho de Sousa left Paraíba on the easternmost point of Brazil, in the northern province of Hamaracá, destined for Maranhão, to the north of present-day Ceará. With Coelho de Sousa were 65 white men and 200 Potiguar and Tabajara Indians. At the Ibia-paba hills to the northwest of Ceará the expedition met with the Tabajara in the area, who had the support of seven armed Frenchmen. After much fighting, the Portuguese conquered their opponents, including the famous chief Irapuam, who appears as Iracema’s disappointed suitor in Alencar’s novel. One of the members of Coelho de Sousa’s expedition was 19-year-old Martim Soares Moreno, popularized as the “white warrior” in Iracema, the Honey-Lips. Conflicting accounts exist, but apparently he got lost and was adopted by the Potiguar Indians. Certainly he was fast friends with the Potiguar warrior Poty (later baptized as Antonio Phelipe Camarão) and his brother Jacaúna. Soares learned to speak Tupi and assimilated into Indian culture; in 1611 he attacked a French or Dutch ship that tried to land in Ceará, aided by members of the Tremembé tribe. According to sources, he “fought naked, scarred and dyed black with genipapo in the Indian manner” (Hemming, p. 210). Renata Wasserman points out that Alencar knowingly rearranged the chronology of Soares’s disappearance into the Brazilian jungle: “the historical model of Martim disappeared for a few years into an Indian tribe; he was next seen, naked and painted, when he was captured with his tribal companions by a Portuguese expedition. It was only after this episode that he went back to the king’s service as settler” (Wasserman, Exotic Nations, p. 207). Eventually he took back to the Brazilian governor-general a son of his that had been born in Ceará “to prove that the area was peaceful enough for settlement” (Hemming, p. 210). In 1610 or 1611 he was made Captain of Ceará. In 1615, on his way either to Ceará or to Portugal from his base in Maranhão, Soares was blown off course and captured by the French off Santo Domingo. He was sentenced to death in Dieppe, France, for his part in killing Frenchmen in Maranhão. The Spanish ambassador interceded on his part and his life was spared. In 1619 he was named governor of Ceará, and established what is now the city of Fortaleza. Soares died an old man in the land he helped conquer.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

Father of Brazilian fiction

Published in 1865, Iracema was instrumental in the formation of the Brazilian novel. One needs to keep in mind that there were few readers at the time and most of them were male. “Only about 20 percent of Brazilian men could read and write their own names—much less read a novel” (Haberly in Gonzales Echevarría and Pupo-Walker, p. 139). The handful of Brazilian novelists, then, were males writing for a small male audience. Yet these writers faced a dilemma. They found it impossible to import styles and subjects for their fiction from Europe, for they lived in a traditional slave-owning empire based on different principles than those emerging overseas. In European fiction, for example, characters advanced because they deserved to, that is, because of merit. Such ideas struck Brazilian intellectuals of the period as dangerous, since society in their empire still depended not on merit, but on favor, that is, on the less fortunate finding their way into the good graces of the more fortunate, and staying there.

In any case, the task was to develop a prose fiction suited to Brazil’s small cadre of mostly male readers and their environment.

By 1861 Alencar had made considerable progress in this vein with novels about urban life in Brazil and with his first Indianist novel O guaraní (1857), which concerned the love between a blond Portuguese woman and a noble Indian in the 1600s. Casting the story in Brazil in a distant and therefore unfamiliar past gave Alencar free rein. He could invent a new reality, apart from Europe’s, and not be bound by the circumstances of life in contemporary Rio de Janeiro. The result was the group of three Indianist novels discussed above, which provided Brazil with “a highly original mythology of national genesis” (Haberly in González Echevarría and Pupo-Walker, p. 143).

Romanticism and Brazilianess

Romanticism, the literary movement in Europe from the late 1700s to the mid-1800s, privileged feelings and intuition over reason, and concerned itself with cultural nationalism and national origins. With the help of Alencar’s novels, romanticism in Brazil took on characteristics distinct from its European counterparts. In 1853 Domingos José Gançalves de Magalhães published an epic poem, “The Confederation of Tamoios” that, in a classic Greek style, idealized Brazil’s past through its Indian culture. In 1856 a young writer submitted an anonymous letter to the newspaper Diário do Rio de Janeiro censuring the European epic form chosen by Magalhães, declaring it inadequate to represent Brazilian reality. José de Alencar was the young writer, and he answered his own call with the publication the very next year of O guaraní. It was a novel that included what Alencar believed to be the ingredients of Brazilian reality—the idealized Indian, the splendor of Brazilian nature, and the mixture of races. By emphasizing such concepts, he began to differentiate Brazilian from European romantic literature.

When Alencar charged that Magalhaes’s portrayal of the Indians lacked veracity, he entered into a fray that attempted to define what was, in fact, Brazilian. During these efforts to define a national literature and identity, many novels like Iracema, the Honey-Lips promoted the mixture of the races as a positive force that fused the diverse cultures of Brazil. As Renata Wasserman points out, the title of Alencar’s novel demonstrates his intention to celebrate the new hybridism of Brazil: “Iracema, the name of the heroine, is a word Alencar invented following rules of word formation in Guarani, the predominant Indian language along the Brazilian coast…, and it is also an anagram of America” (Wasserman, “The Red and the White,” p. 821).

by idealizing both Martim and Iracema, Alencar joined the ideals of the “noble savage” and innocent Indian culture with the indomitable spirit of the Portuguese adventurer, which, in the character of Martim, is much less violent and greedy than was typical of many actual colonists. In reality Manuel da Nobrega, a Jesuit priest of the time, wrote to the King personally, begging him to send more pure, white women to the colony, as well as more priests to instruct both the colonizers and the Indian population. Alencar reinvents this past with Iracema, the Honey-Lips, creating a glorious—if fictitious—history that would help shape Brazil’s national identity. By portraying the coupling of the Indian and the Portuguese as the union of noble savage and Christian warrior, the novel created a symbol for the nation that reflected the reality of its already mixed-race population. Such a novel could not idealize the Portuguese alone since Brazil had in 1822 declared independence from Portugal. Similarly the dehumaniza-tion to which African slaves were subjected prohibited them from being elevated as a symbol for the nation. The Indians, however, had escaped efforts to turn them into a class of slaves. “It was possible,” explains Wasserman, “to take Amerindians for heroes of nationality: their refusal of slavery became a préfiguration of independence” (Wasserman, Exotic Nations, p. 195). Furthermore, by Alencar’s time, the Indian had for the most part already assimilated into Brazilian society or had fled deep into the forests. So, other than in the colonial past, the Indians whom the novel idealizes did not exist anymore; this meant that any meaning could be safely attached to them and used in the construction of a national identity.


“A lencar’s influence on the development of the nine-teenth-century Brazilian novel cannot be overestimated; he nationalized the genre and made it respectable, he established its peculiar mix of detailed realistic description and romantic ideology, and he largely created its major subgenres,”

(Haberly in González Echevarría and Pupo-Walker, p. 144)

Alencar, again relying largely on imagination, went on to invent another type of fiction, the regionalist novel, whose plots took place in various parts of Brazil’s interior. In sum, he wrote urban novels, Indianist novels, regionalist novels, and historical novels, all set in the country of his birth.


Alencar has been called the “father of Brazilian literature,” not only because he dealt so extensively with the cultural and mythic roots of his nation, but because he celebrated the language of Brazilians. Iracema’s poetic meter and diction are in part an attempt to incorporate Indian oral tradition into the Portuguese of the mainstream culture. In an 1866 review, Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, often heralded as Brazil’s finest novelist (see Dom Casmurro , also covered in Latin Amencan Literature and Its Times), wrote that Iracema is “a model for the cultivation of an American poetry that, please God, will be reinvigorated by works of such superior quality” (Machado de Assis in Wasserman, Exotic Nations, p. 187). Apparently other contemporary critics were less generous with their praise, for in an earlier review Machado de Assis complained that Iracema had not been given its due attention by the nation’s literary critics. More recently, Afrâino Coutinho has been one of a number of Brazilian critics who have agreed that “Alencar created Brazilian fiction, propelling it in the right direction, that of a search for the expression of the nationality” (Coutinho in Wasserman, Exotic Nations, p. 187). Macunaima (also covered in Latin Amencan Literature and Its Times), Mário de Andrade’s influential experimental novel that also attempts to define the Brazilian character, is dedicated: “To José de Alencar, father of the living, shining in the vast heavenly field” (Andrade in Castello, p. 201). Iracema has, to date, been printed in more than 100 editions in Brazil.

—Anthony Miles Potter

For More Information

Alencar, José de. Como e porque sou romancista. São Paulo: Pontes, 1990.

_____. Iracema, the Honey-Lips: A Legend of Brazil. Trans. Isabel Burton. London: Bickers & Son, 1886.

Burns, Bradford, E. A History of Brazil.3rd ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Castello, José Aderaldo. “José de Alencar.” In Latin Ameñcan Wñters. Vol. 1. Ed. Carlos A. Solé and Maria Isabel Abreu. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1989.

Coutinho, Afrânio. Enciclopedia de Literatura Brasileira. Rio de Janeiro: FAE, 1989.

Foster, David William, éd. Handbook of Latin American Literature.2nd ed. New York: Garland, 1992.

González Echevarría, Roberto, and Enrique Pupo-Walker. Latin American Literature. Vol. 3. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Hemming, John. Red Gold: The Conquest of the Brazilian Indians. London: Macmillan, 1978.

Macdonald, N. P. The Making of Brazil: Portuguese Roots, 1500-1822. Sussex: Book Guild, 1996.

Wasserman, Renata R. Mautner. Exotic Nations: Literature and Cultural Identity in the United States and Brazil, 1830-1930. Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994.

_____. “The Red and the White: The ‘Indian’ Novels of José de Alencar.” PMLA 98, no. 5 (October 1983): 815-25.